Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A Fortnight in South East Sicily

Six times thirty days of sun sheer down upon our heads; this summer of ours which is as long and glum as a Russian winter and which we struggle against with less success. If a Sicilian worked hard in any of those months he would expend energy enough for three. Then water is either lacking altogether or has to be carried from so far that every drop is paid for by a drop of sweat… This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension is everything...

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Life, said Hobbes, is "poor, nasty, brutish, and short". It has remained so in Sicily. In 1951 a survey revealed that 15 out 31 cities had no running water. Visitors then could have an authentic medieval experience, complete with residual feudalism and open sewers. For the visitor now, there is little evidence of abject poverty, but this has been replaced by evidence of what appears a determination to defile both town and countryside.

Guidebooks make little reference to the extreme ugliness of the outskirts of the great Sicilian cities. We were based for the past two weeks just outside Modica, one of many towns in the South East of the island to have been completely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1693 in a late flowering of the Baroque style.

Thus, this (San Pietro in Modica):

...contrasts with this (one of many dispiriting views as you struggle into the Modica city centre):

Not to mention this:

In short, one of the most beautiful, flamboyant, confident periods of architecture was applied to the design of entire cities. And then they were - more or less - left to rot. And rot beautifully. The aristocrats who built them refused to visit their estates, preferring the high life in Palermo and Monte Carlo before a confluence of regrettable circumstances sparked the great defilement.

The arrival of democracy in Italy co-incided post-war with the growth of anti-Communist black ops by the Americans. The CIA-backed Christian Democrat party formed an unholy alliance with the Mafia to ensure that the Southern Italian vote kept out the Communists, who by rights should probably have governed Italy for significant periods after the war.

The result was that Sicily became a mafia playground where anything went. The Italian state's so-called Mezzogiorno fund - ostensibly designed to bring Southern Italy up to the levels of prosperity in the North - was spent by Mafia politicians, Mafia planners and Mafia builders on often unfinished construction projects which now blight the island - with money sticking to the sides at each stage of the process.

The battle for control of this and the international narcotics business claimed the lives of hundreds of mafiosi not to mention the brave new generation of Sicilian prosecutors who returned to the island in the 1980s to bring order to the chaos.

Thus brutal heat, brutalist architecture and a reputation for ultra-violence appears to have kept the tourist at bay, more or less. Yes the tour buses visit Palermo, Etna and Syracusa (and rightly so) but we only saw a handful of foreigners in Modica over two weeks. One Sunday morning, to my bourgeois horror, a tour bus drew up as I was subsuming a favoured breakfast - Caffe Granita.
Fifty or so overweight Italians were decanted into the main square and spent no more than 10 minutes being lectured on il stilo barocco modicano before being rushed off to the next treasure-trove. Then what passes for peace in Modica returned (namely loud arguments in dialect, crockery being smashed and the occasional car crash).

Everything here is light and shade against a backdrop of seedy grandeur. The shuttered palazzo above stands next to the Modica Cathedral (below)

It is derelict, with weeds growing out of its steps, doubtless owned by a latter day Lampedusa living in one room of another palazzo in Palermo, embroiled in arguments over a will dating back to perhaps 1890. I stayed in such a place in Naples twenty years ago having driven there to look around after a wedding in Rome. Our accommodation - a B&B managed by the ancient principe - was one of three new rooms jerry-built with plasterboard out of a single grand camera. The other occupants of the rest of what was still a beautiful and impressive edifice were a nursery, a brothel and a driving school. I have rarely been anywhere more romantic.

Religion appears to follow the pattern. The heady frivolity of the
barocco is underpinned by a literal and gloomy Catholicism. Churches are chock-full of saints' body parts, tattered theatrical red curtains, Madonnas in the Snow and heart-rending statues of the Christ, as below. Those knees make me weep.

We did not make it on this trip to the Capuccin Catacombs in Palermo. Here the intersection of intense social rivalry and religious superstition made it fashionable to be interned publicly in the vaulted cellars of the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. But you had to pay an annual rent - if your family stopped paying, your body was turfed out.
Then there is the food (my supposed topic). Firstly the produce, extraordinary vegetables some of which I hadn't seen before: Zucchini leaves? Wild celery? Aubergines and tomatoes which bear no resemblance to their sub-standard English equivalents. The fish, especially the gambero rosso (pink raw prawns) were quite simply revelatory. We decided that we couldn't afford the creature below (that's the stunted pre-historic looking lobster known locally as a Zocallo and in Australia as a Moreton Bay Bug).

The pictures above was taken in my new all-time favourite restaurant, Antica Marina in Catania, pipping Murmeli in Lech and whisper it Zum See in Zermatt. "Can we see the menu?" I asked as we sat down. "Menu?" came the just slightly scornful response, "this is the menu," pointing at the display above. The sheer diversity and freshness of the seafood, the generosity and informality, the glamour of the setting in the black-lava courtyard of the fishmarket behind the Duomo. And the clincher: no choice for pudding - only Lemon Sorbetto with Wild Srawberries. I very nearly wept.

It's worth a trip to Catania on its own, a city which felt like Buenos Aires (not that I've been), hot and dusty with long belle epoque boulevards, pickpockets and heroin addicts, buildings made of Etna's black lava (below). It had what my fellow-traveller Johnny calls "an atomosphere" - a genuine, beautiful Sicilian darkness.


  1. I was going to write something terribly clever about Lampedusa's Don Fabrizio, but I've been to a party, and no longer have the wit. And I'm quite sure it wouldn't have done justice to such a beautiful post anyway. So all I shall say is how much I enjoyed reading it, and how it made Sicily come alive.

  2. really enjoyed reading this and looking at your photos. could smell the food all the way across the Atlantic, and feel the sun. great shots, too.

  3. Great post, and enjoyed following as it happened on twitter.

  4. Thanks for all your kind remarks...the whole experience was overwhelming...

  5. Racist! I am a Sicilian American and find your remarks quite racist and insulting. You obviously hate Sicilians and it so evident in your racist rankings. I have visited Sicily many times and found it to be extremely beautiful and lovely. You could go anywhere in the world, to any city and find a garbage bin overfilled or a derelict car or a building etc. As for your history lesson on the mafia it is so over-exaggerated and totally false. As for the extreme violence of the Sicilian people, Sicily has one of the lowest crime rates in all of Europe. And it was named the most popular resort destination in 2009 for Europeans. White people like yourself, especially Anglo-Saxon, have to come to terms with your blatant racial hatred and learn to respect all peoples of color, such as African, Asian, Hispanic and in this case Sicilians.

  6. Sorry, Mike - call it racist if you like but I was merely basing this on my experience and a number of (well-respected, I think) novels and histories of the island. I rather thought it came out that I loved the place...

  7. Well at least you admit your a racist...

  8. James Scott Linville29 September 2009 at 02:16

    I do wonder if you simplified the politics, and I'm not sure I needed a picture of the garbage, because I believed you, but wow what a wonderful evocative post. Your love for the place shines through.

    I want to go.

  9. Bless you Mike, I see you have 'previous' in this area ( I apologise, of course, that you are upset but do not feel that I can accept the accusation of racism. Good luck to you...

  10. Charlie - I wonder if these two are related:

    (Check the comments for someone called 'gingerliu'

  11. Racists are Racists are Racists

  12. Mike -
    "Racists are Racists are Racists"...
    I re-read that, just in case I missed something profound. Unfortunately, all I could see were some random words, bereft of meaning. How you could possibly see anything racist in the above post is entirely beyond me. The only real negative sense one gets after reading it is that the poster wishes that Sicily was less ravaged by its past corruption, and perhaps had more civic pride.
    How is that racist?
    If the guy who writes this blog somehow hates Sicilians, why the fuck did he go there? The only intelligent conclusion to make is that he doesn't hate Sicilians.
    Unless you believe that somehow the Mafia do not exist, and therefore anyone who mentions them is racist. Perhaps this: is you?
    After all, on the web, we can always see your trail.